“Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case” has its Madison premiere on Thursday at 9:30 p.m. at the Union South Marquee, 1208 W. Regent St., and plays again Saturday at 6 p.m. Not rated, 1:26, three stars out of four. FREE!
I highly enjoyed Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which followed the combative Chinese dissident artist as he traveled the world, thumbing his nose at the authorities and making art that exposed the government’s cruelty. But the film seemed to have one big gap — after daring the Chinese police to arrest him, they finally acquiesce, and Weiwei goes missing for months. When we see him again, now under house arrest, he looks chastened. “I can’t say anything,” says the man who seemingly will say everything.
What happened to him? Did they finally make the great man blink? Another documentary, “Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case,” aims to fill in the gap.
Filmmaker Andreas Johnsen spent the next year with Weiwei while he was on probation for alleged tax evasion charges — charges that were trumped up after his arrest. As the film opens, the big bear of a man seems almost deflated, suffering from sleep disorders and unwilling or unable to talk about what happened to him in captivity. “Even if I explained it to you, you wouldn’t understand,” he tells Johnsen at one point.
Meanwhile, Weiwei’s struggles against the charges against him drag on, as the government intimidates most of the lawyers hired to defend him. Weiwei’s tactic against the secretive government has always been complete and total openness — he even “aids” the police surveillance of him by setting up live webcams around his house — turning seeming obedience and openness into its own form of protest. But he genuinely seems worried that this time the government will beat him. In its focus on an artist held captive in his own home, trying to find ways around the Kafkaesque restrictions imposed on him, “The Fake Case” strongly resembles Jahar Panahi’s “This is Not a Film.”
Eventually, Weiwei seems to regain his emotional footing and does start becoming more confident exercising his rights again, including working on detailed dioramas depicting exactly what life was like during captivity for Weiwei. The film ends on a note of irresolution — Weiwei may beat the trumped-up charges against him, but, as the police tell him, they can always trump up new ones.
In that kind of environment, everyone is already under arrest, really. The experience seems to have humbled Weiwei but also given him a new resolve to make art and to speak out. “Fake Case” is less immediately entertaining than “Never Sorry, but it is a worthy companion piece that shows the artist remains unbowed.